Dedications: My four late friends Rory, Stan, Bryan, Jeff - shine on you crazy diamonds, they would have blogged too. Then theres Garry from Brisbane, Franco in Milan, Mike now in S.F. / my '60s-'80s gang: Ned & Joseph in Ireland; in England: Frank, Des, Guy, Clive, Joe & Joe, Ian, Ivan, Nick, David, Les, Stewart, the 3 Michaels / Catriona, Sally, Monica, Jean, Ella, Anne, Candie / and now: Daryl in N.Y., Jerry, John, Colin, Martin and Donal.

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Pope Joan

POPE JOAN was little seen in 1972 and has never appeared here since, I was always curious about it but that has now been taken care of by a German issued dvd. Well, there's trash of all kinds: the higher trash, the lower trash, delirious trash, classy trash and boring trash. JOAN falls into the latter camp, tedium reigns supreme here as glum (very) Liv Ullmann plays the supposed female pope. This is based on the medieval legend of Pope Joan, who was made Pope for a brief period around 855 A.D. Although it is questionable that Pope Joan really did exist, this movie presents her existence as fact, but is a very unimaginative telling of the legend.  The film though is typical of the sort of international co-productions made 40 years ago in the late '60s/early 70s.

It was shot I believe in Romania and looks it, what scuppers the latter part of the film, when we are supposed to be in Rome it is so obviously some central European backwater and looks nothing like the Eternal City (or even Constantinople). The Dark Ages is a fascinating period of history, when Christianity was probably at its zenith and the general population were terrified of hell and damnation and plagues, the age of those great cathedrals, as fascinating as the medieval world or the renaissance. Some great movies have captured this: Ingmar Bergman's THE SEVENTH SEAL, rousing adventures like THE VIKINGS and EL CID, or the wit of THE LION IN WINTER or Zeffirelli's sumptuous BROTHER SUN SISTER MOON (with Alec Guinness as a very wily pope), or BECKET or any version of THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME (I like the '50s Quinn-Lollobrigida one). POPE JOAN by comparison looks cheaply made but here the cast is the thing. Ullmann - so great in her European films - didn't really translate in her English efforts or the films were just not that good - I have her 40 CARATS to see soon too, and of course everybody laughed at LOST HORIZON (Bette Midler: "I never miss a Liv Ullmann musical"), her other one with Peter Finch THE ABDICATION also emptied cinemas and has also vanished from view, whereas we all always have room for PERSONA or AUTUMN SONATA or her other major titles.

The brutality of the age is captured vividly when the convent orphan Joan has taken refuge in is sacked, and the mother superior (Olivia De Havilland) is crucified upside down and nice Lesley-Anne Down slain brutally ... Joan and monk Maximilian Schell make their escape and wander around that grubby Europe before Joan's gift for reading the bible gets them noticed by the church. In no time she is made a cardinal and assistant to the kindly old pope Trevor Howard who names him/her (oh, she hacked off her hair and has been posing as a male) as his successor, so soon she is indeed Pope. Then Franco Nero re-enters, having caught her eye earlier at the convent ... how soon before he suspects her secret?  We don't really see them get together much but it seems Joan is heavily pregnant which she can hide under her pope's vestments, but it was rather foolish of her to go out among the peasants just as she goes into labour, and the superstitious people tear her to shreds ...
Everyone seems to accept Liv as a male and she certainly looks glum enough. The interesting cast is made up of several thespians of the time - there is even a young Nigel Havers and the last performance of David Farrar (Mr Dean in BLACK NARCISSUS) but I did not spot them among dependables like Andre Morrell, Richard Pearson, Jeremy Kemp, George Innes, Peter Arne, Patrick Magee. Produced by Kurt Unger and directed by old hand Michael Anderson, well used to handling large casts in movies I like like AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL, OPERATION CROSSBOW, and Gary Cooper's final two, among others. The dvd has interesting later interviews with Ullmann, Schell, Anderson and writer John Briley. There is also a 2009 version of POPE JOAN but for me one was enough. 


  1. Your comments about Pope Joan are partially correct but on the whole unfair. I feel that some explanations can be found in

    Obviously I was saddened that you did not mention the outstanding technical qualities of the Cinematography of Oscar winner Billy Williams, or the haunting music score by Maurice Jarre. Thanks to his screenplay on Pope Joan writer John Briley got the job of writing Gandhi for which he gained his first Oscar. Yes this film had the finest Talents money could buy in the early 70s, and no, the Rome in the latter part of the film was not shot in some 'Eastern European backwater', but designed and built by the finest craftsmen at Bray Studios outside London.

    The recent interviews you viewed we're prepared to assist in the marketing of She....who would be Pope. You may be interested to see the film as its creators meant it to look, with a modern day Joan, in which case please contact me via the website.

    Daniel Unger